HP turns to design for reversal of PC fortunes

The company hopes to standardise material, designs and colors on laptops, desktops and tablets

Hewlett-Packard is barely holding on to the top spot in the laptop and desktop market, but hopes a renewed vigor regarding product design will help reverse the fortunes of its PC business.

The company is standardizing the design and features in its laptops and tablets to help customers identify its products and also to cut manufacturing costs. Similar to Apple's strategy, HP is standardizing on materials, colors, designs and features, which were inconsistent across consumer and enterprise product lines.

HP had silos for products, with each family having different philosophies, colors and designs, said Chad Paris , creative lead of notebook product design at the global business unit.

"In looking at that, nothing said to me it is HP," Paris said.

Some of the new product designs were visible in the latest ProBook laptops that were launched earlier this week. The company is standardizing on a round HP logo on the top of its laptop and tablet lines, a change from the past, when logos were either rectangular or simply didn't appear.

"In the past you may have seen 20 different logo sizes across our products in different colors. Our logos will be much more consistent in terms of size. You want that consistency to build brand equity and recognition," Paris said.

HP in the past also tried to personalize products like laptops with many different colors, with a notable effort being the incorporation of artwork from fashion designer Vivienne Tam on some of its portable products like netbooks. HP is now centralizing design of colors, and some of the new laptops launched this year by HP are available in fewer colors.

Some of the new features also are manifested in the touchpad, with most of the laptops offering two click buttons. That's a change from an earlier design in which HP integrated the click buttons into the touchpad.

The company is making small changes like standardizing audio features and the location of the power button across laptops and tablets. Other features, such as keyboard type, will be unique to product lines. The ProBooks will have water-resistant keyboards, a feature that was earlier reserved for the more expensive models.

Hewlett-Packard is still the world's top PC maker, but is being challenged by China-based PC maker Lenovo, which is in close second, according to recent surveys by multiple research firms. HP in 2011 toyed with the idea of selling or spinning off of the Personal Systems Group, which deals in client devices like PCs and tablets, but the unit was ultimately retained. The standardization of design took shape with the arrival of Meg Whitman as CEO in September 2011. HP is now expanding into the tablet market, last year launching the $699 ElitePad business tablet and late last month shipping the $169.99 Slate 7 Android tablet.

HP has always focused on design, but some of the first fruits of the laptop design standardization effort are visible in the ProBooks, Paris said. He added that redesign is also being driven by Stacy Wolff, vice president of design for HP.

"With the support of [Meg Whitman], with Stacy driving the centralization of design, we are able to focus on what the strategy should be in 2013 and beyond," Paris said.

But radical changes can't be made overnight. Some long-time users of Lenovo's ThinkPad laptops, for example, cried foul when the PC maker announced it would incorporate design changes, including a redesigned keyboard and integrated battery.

Paris acknowledged that radical changes in product design can't be sudden, especially for faithful HP laptop users. But HP will continually evolve the design based on user feedback and focus groups.

"This is the first step," Paris said.

The company also revamped its server business late last month. HP combined its two server businesses into a new division called HP servers and also created a business unit called Converged Systems that will deal in purpose-built systems based on specific applications and usage models.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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